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Is Barefoot for You?

Minimalist shoes have been growing in popularity for the past few years since Vibram sold it’s first Five Fingers shoe in 2006. I remember seeing them for the first time at a strength and conditioning summit in 2008. My initial thought was that the few people wearing them were “crazy”.  I purchased my first pair in 2011, the same year Vibram reached it’s peak popularity, and have added a few more pairs to my collection since. I now wear minimalist footwear most of the time.

All of the major sneaker brands now have their own versions of minimalist type shoes.  “What makes a shoe minimalist” you ask? If you google that question, you will find a variety of different answers, but in general a minimalist shoe has minimal offset from the heel to toe, a very flexible sole and no arch support.  Typical sneakers have a 12mm drop from the heel to toe, while many minimalist shoes have a 0mm drop. There are varying degrees of offset offered by different manufacturers.

Why switch to barefoot or minimalist? Born to Run by Christopher McDougall was a key influence in the running community. The book describes how members of the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico run long distances (up to 150 miles) on rocky paths with thin sandals.

There is also anecdotal evidence that our footwear is responsible for most of our foot dysfunction, and possibly a large portion of leg and low back issues. We cram our feet into shoes that are narrow, and stiff with high heels. Experts argue that the shoes restrict natural movement of our feet, cause our heel cords to lose flexibility, and allow the muscles in our feet to atrophy.  These changes can affect how other muscle and joints work in the rest of our body.

There is evidence that running barefoot decreases knee stress when running. Running barefoot often facilitates a change in landing mechanics and running form. It promotes decreased stride and less force through the heel which translates into  less force on the knee.  I can say from experience that there is a difference. The first time I ran on the treadmill after my knee surgery, I had pain in the front of my knee if I landed with my heel, but not if I landed with the middle of my foot.

So, should you be a minimalist, or should you stick to your old shoes?…That is not an easy question to answer. Some of that may depend on what type of foot you have (high arch, fallen arch, normal), how flexible you are, and what activities you participate in.  It may also depend on your age. The longer you have been wearing conventional shoes, the more your body has adapted and the harder it will be to change.

If you are thinking about trying the barefoot experience, consult your Physical Therapist. They should be able to evaluate your feet as well as your performance expectations and goals before giving you advice.

Stay tuned for next weeks post on how to make the transition to barefoot. (Even if you are not going barefoot, there will be some great exercises for flexibility, strength and stability that you can benefit from.)

John

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